The tiled floor is cold and slippery. Hugging my knees to my chest, I am anxious and overly aware of my body, half wishing I was still waist-deep in the tepid pool, with my daughter wrapped around me like a corset. We're taking a class designed to help preschoolers make the transition to attending classes on their own. For the first few weeks, I stayed in the water with her for the entire class. Today, the parents were asked to get out and sit on the deck after the first fifteen minutes. Next week, we won't be getting wet at all. The week after that, we are supposed to sit in the viewing gallery, where the kids won't be able to see us.
My daughter turns away from her teacher and looks back at me, plainly confused and seeking rescue. Surely this is some kind of trap. A fresh wave of mama guilt breaks over the back of my mind. Her teacher's instructions must appear to directly contradict my daily litany of warnings. Be careful. Hold my hand. Hold the railing. Hold on a minute. Slow down. Get down from there. Look both ways. Look out. I return her gaze with exaggerated reassurance in my eyes, bob my head like it's on a spring. It's way too loud in there for her to hear me, but I say it anyway. Jump! Yes, really. Jump in! I try to rub the goosebumps off my arms.
Week after week, she has clung to me, shrinking from her sole classmate's exuberant splashing and kicking. Ella is at the opposite extreme. One day, she jumped in out of turn and promptly sunk to the bottom like a stone. When her teacher hauled her up and plunked her firmly in “time out”, she was laughing. I worry about that one sometimes, her mother says, smiling. Yeah, no kidding, I say. I wonder if they have a pool, but they don't. We laugh over how each girl could stand to learn something from the other. A million questions bubble under the surface but because she is a perfect stranger and we're wearing bathing suits, I do not ask them.
I'm doing everything I'm told, and everything I can think of, to help Chelsea face her fear of getting her face wet. I dunked myself first during the Dunk, Dunk song. When I was supposed to dunk her, I tried to imitate the teacher's cheerful, matter of fact way about it, and to resist the overwhelming urge to apologize after. I hug her, and reassure her, and heap praise on her smallest effort. Before class, we talk about what is going to happen. After class, we talk about what happened, and what, if anything, she liked. One day she blew a few bubbles and we were both ecstatic.
But now, watching the little figure in ruffled pink spandex hesitating on the brink, I see my thirteen year old toes curling and uncurling over the edge. I feel my back hunching over with arms dutifully extended, one clammy hand over the other, the gentle roll of the floating dock mirrored and amplified into nauseating waves in my belly.
I loved the water. I was, at best, a passable swimmer and never aspired to be anything more, for I was basically uncoordinated and lazy. I'd spent every spare minute of my adolescence with a book, a habit which I have maintained well into my thirties. But I could float happily for hours, retrieve rubber rings like a trained seal, and tread water as well as any of the more athletic girls. I even used to like doing handstands and swimming underwater, digging for those marvellously tiny shells. But I simply could not dive in.
I said I was afraid of touching the bottom, of the water snakes, the seaweed, the spiders. The silty, squishy mud which raises into a murky cloud at a toe's barest provocation. Such things were indeed feared by the normal girls in my class. The accepted opinion was that the bottom of Trout Lake was, like, totally gross. So I was happy to pretend to excessive squeamishness if it meant keeping the truth of the matter tucked safely away, which was that I'd stared down the YMCA's comparatively pristine deep end over the winter and could not will my legs to spring then, either. I was just plain afraid.
The first few times I'd tried, I'd bellyflopped. It hurt, almost as much as all the barely stifled laughs I'd earned for it. But there was, is, another layer to the fear that is harder to explain than physical pain and embarrassment. There's just something about the prospect of going head first into something, anything, that turns my legs to jello. Get down from there. The words echo through my every cell. And they're a million times louder and more persuasive than “It's safe!” or “You can do it!” or “Don't be such a baby” or anything else anyone has ever said to me when I was standing there on the edge.
To my daughter I say, I know you're scared and that's okay. You'll jump when you're ready. One day you will put your face in the water. And, I used to be scared of going underwater too, but then one day, I did it. I remember the exhilaration of slicing cleanly through the surface, a pure physical joy that took me completely by surprise. To anyone watching, I'm sure it was a completely unremarkable performance, more of a tumble than a leap. And I'd love to say that I did it another ten times that day, and that ever since I've been fearlessly plunging head first into water so deep I can't feel the bottom, but I didn't, and I haven't, unless you count the day I threw out my birth control pills, which I kind of do.
We're into the second term of swimming lessons now, where I watch from the viewing gallery every day. She looks even smaller from up here, when I can pick her out at all, and she can't see me. The day she jumps, I'll feel that distance grow, even as my heart expands to its very limit with love and pride. For today it's enough that we're both here, holding on.